Oxford University researchers rediscover rare egg-laying mammal last seen in 60 years ago

  • Rare mammal last seen 60 years ago photographed by Oxford University researchers

A bizarre egg-laying mammal has been seen on camera for the first time in 60 years.

An expedition team, led by researchers from the University of Oxford, spent four weeks in an Indonesian tropical forest waiting to spot a long-beaked echidna.

The critically endangered animal appeared on the final day and has been named after famed broadcaster Sir David Attenborough.

Its appearance includes the spines of a hedgehog, the snout of an anteater, and the feet of a mole.

The mammal, re-discovered in the Cyclops Mountains in Indonesia, has never been recorded anywhere else.

Echidnas are notoriously difficult to find since they are nocturnal, live in burrows, and tend to be very shy.

To give themselves the best chance of finding one, the team deployed over 80 trail cameras, making multiple ascents of the mountains, and climbing more than 11,000 meters (more than the height of Everest) in the process.

For almost the entire four weeks that the team spent in the forest, the cameras recorded no sign of the echidna.

On the last day, with the last images on the final memory card, the team obtained their shots of the elusive mammal - the first-ever photographs of Attenborough's echidna.

The identification was later confirmed by Professor Kristofer Helgen, Director of the Australian Museum Research Institute (AMRI). Credit: University of Oxford

The rare animal is part of the same species as a platypus - they belong to a distinct group of egg-laying mammals known as a monotreme.

Attenborough's long-beaked echidna is one of only five remaining species of monotremes and is currently classified as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

Dr James Kempton, a biologist from the University of Oxford who conceived of and led the expedition, said: "Because of its hybrid appearance, it shares its name with a creature of Greek mythology that is half human, half serpent.

"The reason it appears so unlike other mammals is because it is a member of the monotremes - an egg-laying group that separated from the rest of the mammal tree-of-life about 200 million years ago."

The team attributes its success to YAPPENDA whose mission is to protect the natural environment of Indonesian New Guinea through the empowerment of Indigenous Papuans.

They had built a relationship with the community of Yongsu Sapari, a village on the north coast of the Cyclops Mountains.

"The trust between us was the bedrock of our success because they shared with us the knowledge to navigate these treacherous mountains, and even allowed us to researchon lands that have never before felt the tread of human feet," Dr Kempton added.

Besides rediscovering the echidna, the team uncovered a wealth of species completely new to science, including beetles, spiders, and a remarkable tree-dwelling shrimp.

They also rediscovered the Mayr's honeyeater (Ptiloprora mayri), a bird lost to science since 2008 and named after famed evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr.

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The team called the expedition land "beautiful but dangerous".

At times, they faced life-threatening conditions amidst the discoveries - they battled through earthquakes, malaria, broken limbs, mosquitos, ticks and leeches.

Dr Kempton added: "Though some might describe the Cyclops as a 'Green Hell', I think the landscape is magical, at once enchanting and dangerous, like something out of a Tolkien book.

"In this environment, the camaraderie between the expedition members was fantastic, with everyone helping to keep up morale.

"In the evening, we exchanged stories around the fire, all the while surrounded by the hoots and peeps of frogs."

The team hope that its rediscovery will help bring attention to the conservation needs of the Cyclops, and Indonesian New Guinea more generally, and they are committed to supporting long-term monitoring of the echidna.